MANILA, Philippines (AP) — A U.S. Marine suspected in the gruesome killing of a transgender Filipino was flown Wednesday from his warship to the Philippine military's main camp, where he will continue to be guarded by fellow Marines, in a compromise that eased a looming irritant over his custody.
The emotional case involving Pfc. Joseph Scott Pemberton and Jennifer Laude, whose former name was Jeffrey, came as the Philippines and the United States were strengthening ties with the recent signing of a defense accord that allows greater U.S. access to Philippine military camps. The accord would help Washington's bid to reassert its presence in Asia and Manila to deter what it calls China's aggressive moves to reinforce its claims in contested South China Sea territories.
Left-wing activists and nationalist Filipinos have cited the custody provision of the accord — which says American military suspects shall remain in U.S. custody until legal processes are completed — as proof that the accord undermines the sovereignty of the Philippines, which was an American colony until 1946.
Pemberton's transfer by helicopter to Manila was agreed by the U.S. and the Philippines, military chief of staff Gen. Gregorio Pio Catapang told a news conference.
The 19-year-old Marine, who arrived in handcuffs, was detained in an air-conditioned container van with grilled windows, directly guarded by U.S. Marines while Philippine military police will be posted outside the fenced compound, Catapang said.
President Benigno Aquino III welcomed the U.S. decision to transfer the suspect, telling a news forum with foreign correspondents that the Americans "are responding to our needs and our sensitivities."
Appearing before a Senate foreign relations committee hearing on Laude's killing, Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario said the Philippine government would never have agreed if U.S. officials decided to detain Pemberton at the American embassy in Manila, where a Marine rape suspect was held years ago, describing such a prospect as "totally unacceptable."
Hours after the U.S. Marine's transfer, Laude's mother, two sisters, German boyfriend and the family's lawyer — trailed by a throng of journalists and TV cameramen — managed to come close to the military camp compound, where Pemberton was being held, and demanded that they be let in.
"This is the family of the woman he killed. Come here," family lawyer Harry Roque yelled from outside the locked gate. "Mr. American, how come you haven't even condoled?"
When the Filipino guards refused to open the gate, one of Laude's sisters and German boyfriend climbed over the fence into the compound but were prevented by the guards from getting close to Pemberton's van a few meters away. Other military officials arrived and Laude's family and lawyer later left.
While the suspect has been moved to a Philippine camp, he remains in U.S. custody, the U.S. Marine Corps said, citing the Visiting Forces Agreement, which stipulates treatment of American military personnel suspected of breaking law.
The Marine Corps takes allegations of illegal acts by its forces seriously, Marine Corps Pacific spokesman Col. Brad Bartelt said, but added: "It is important to remember that anyone accused of a crime is presumed innocent until proven guilty in a court of law."
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said Monday that Washington seeks no special privilege for the suspect but only protection of his rights.
Philippine and U.S. authorities engaged in a high-profile custody battle over another U.S. Marine, Daniel Smith, who was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison on charges of raping a Filipino woman in 2005. A Philippine appeals court overturned his conviction in 2009, allowing him to leave the country amid anti-U.S. protests.
In the latest case, Philippine police and witnesses said Pemberton and Laude, 26, met at a disco bar in Olongapo city on Oct. 11, then went to a motel room where Laude's body was later found. She had apparently been drowned in the toilet bowl.
The amphibious assault ship USS Peleliu, where Pemberton initially was detained, had been ordered to stay in Subic during the investigation. But on Wednesday, U.S. Pacific Commander Adm. Samuel Locklear cleared the Peleliu to leave the Philippines.
Associated Press writers Oliver Teves in Manila and Matthew Pennington in Washington contributed to this report.